The following tale is The Magpie King and the Black Squirrel. The Yarnsworld is a land in which stories are important, and in no part of the world is that more true than the Magpie King’s forest – knowing your folktales, and heeding the warnings in them, can save your life under those dark boughs.
This is one of the oldest tales of the forest, harking back to the first days of the Magpie King’s reign. The further back in time these stories go, the less familiar they feel – in The Magpie King and the Black Squirrel animals talk to humans, and a small mammal can kidnap the sun.
If this sounds familiar to you, there might be a good reason – like many of the Yarnsworld folktales, this one has roots in our own world, in this case based on one of the tales told by the Wabanaki in North American, respun slightly to fit the Magpie King’s narrative.
It is one of my favourite tales from They Mostly Come Out At Night, and based on feedback I’ve received over the years, I am not alone in that sentiment.
The Magpie King and the Black Squirrel
An extract from the teachings of the High Corvae
It was in the early days of the forest, long before the outsiders arrived. The world was still new, and would look strange to your eyes if you saw it now. Cat and mouse would walk together through the leaves, chatting abouta joke a human had told them earlier that morning. Rabbits sneered rudely at passersby, concerned that everyone was after their patches of clover. Strange creatures that you cannot imagine shared these trees as their home, such as mammoths, bears and dragons.
The Magpie King was young, and was still becoming accustomed to his power. He viewed every feature of his forest with wonder and delight, and found great joy in taking the opportunity to pass the time of day with every deer, leopard or wolf.
This idyllic paradise was shattered when a great darkness enveloped the sky above the forest. Man, woman, fox and frog alike threw themselves to the dirt and wailed for the Magpie King to protect them.
“What is causing this?” the Magpie King demanded of his subjects. “What is happening to the sun?”
“It is Mikweh, the black squirrel,” they responded, writhing in unison into the dirt at the thought of the world ending. “He is eating the sun to teach us a lesson.”
The Magpie King shielded his eyes with his hand and raised them up to the sun. Sure enough, there was Mikweh, balancing high on a fir tree, with the sun in his paws and daylight dripping like syrup from his mouth.
I should tell you now that squirrels back then were not like squirrels are now. For a start, there was only one of them – Mikweh – and he was in a permanent state of anger, for he believed that the other animals were constantly laughing at his bushy tail. Our squirrels in the forest, when they appear, are small and weak, and frightened of their own shadows. Not so was Mikweh, in the dawn of the world. He was huge – taller than three stags perched atop one another – and incredibly strong. The Magpie King was still learning about his own abilities, but even then he knew he was no match for Mikweh, at least physically. Unlike the fiery red coats of the squirrels of our forest, Mikweh’s coat was a wiry black. Black as the anger that gnawed at his soul.
“Raise yourselves, gentle creatures,” the Magpie King bade the mourning animals. “I shall seek an audience with our friend squirrel and see if he cannot be appeased.” So the Magpie King set off to meet with Mikweh, the black squirrel.
It was a journey that itself is worth many stories. Mikweh had made his home deep in the forest, at the top of the tallest tree. It took many years for the Magpie King to find and reach his quarry. In that time, he learnt how to sing, found and then lost a dear friend, and forgot how to smile. The dark figure who finally reached the top of that fir tree was an uncanny shade of the man he had been when his journey had begun.
“Mikweh,” the Magpie King bellowed, a cloak of black and white feathers that had been gifted to him by the Great Magpie during the previous winter flowing behind him in the strong wind. “Put down the sun and speak with me.”
Mikweh still had the sun in his grasp, but that once-fiery orb had diminished greatly in size and its juices stained the squirrel’s maw. The black squirrel turned to the Magpie King to regard him with its red eyes, and the creature simply opened its jaw to scream at the man who had dared to disturb him.
“Mine. Sun belongs to Mikweh. Animals not laugh at Mikweh any more. Too busy screaming.”
The Magpie King’s lip curled and he took a leap closer to his target. He nodded in agreement with the squirrel. “Yes, oh great squirrel, you have truly shown us the error of our ways. Won’t you come down to the forest with me so that all creatures can beg your forgiveness?”
The beast snarled again at the Magpie King, and turned back to the sun to sink his teeth into it once more. The sun did its best to pull away from its attacker, straining to lift itself back onto its celestial path, but the muscles in the squirrel’s forearms bulged and the sun was held firm.
An almighty rumbling grew the Magpie King’s attention to its source, and as his eyes fell upon Mikweh’s distended belly, a plan formed in his mind.
“Oh, great Mikweh,” he began humbly, “it pains me you have dedicated yourself so passionately to our deserved education that you have neglected your own needs. We all know that feasting only on the sun for the past year and five days will not have satisfied your hunger. A sun is composed of warmth and light, and not much else – hardly a fitting meal for one of your stature. Please, allow me to seek out more adequate food for one such as yourself while you continue to chastise the rest of the forest.”
The black squirrel turned to snarl again at the Magpie King, and returned to gnaw on his sun. But the creature’s belly rumbled and its red eyes darted to regard the Magpie King, and as they did so a flicker of hope rippled through them. A smile threatened to break on the Magpie King’s lips at that moment, but he forced it into hiding and disappeared back down the fir tree.
The Magpie King’s journey to locate food for Mikweh would take more time than we have now to recount. Save to say it was a perilous one, taking him to depths of the forest he had never ventured into before. He lost the ring finger of his left hand to an army of red ants. He found a wooden earring he would treasure forever, and he awoke a new enemy that would eventually be his bloodline’s doom. Finally, he was able to return to Mikweh with an armful of red berries he had found within sight of the Lion’s mountains, each fruit as large as a man’s head, each containing a stone that was the size of a clenched fist.
“Here, good Mikweh. I have brought nourishment to fuel your great endeavours.”
On sight of the red bounty the black squirrel leapt from its perch, dragging the mutilated sun with him. He slavered over the gifts from the Magpie King, sucking on the red flesh of the berries and crunching into the stones until all were gone, and his belly gave a soft rumble of contentment. The squirrel lay there for a moment in front of the Magpie King, one hand still clutching the dying star to his breast and the other cradling his satisfied gut. With a trembling hand, the Magpie King reached forth and patted Mikweh on his head. As he did so, the squirrel gave a whimper of contentment, shuddered, and then visibly reduced in size. The Magpie King smiled as this happened, and at that moment, the sun made another pull away from its captor’s claws, but to no avail. The squirrel remained the size of a large horse, and anger still fuelled its powerful claws.
“You are much stronger now,” the Magpie King complimented Mikweh, “yet I feel I have not been equal to the task I had set myself. Forgive me, almighty black squirrel, I shall away to find more to sustain you with.” With that, the Magpie King leapt from the top of the fir. Once again, the details of his journey could entertain a mind for a lifetime. He stepped on a snake and had his face spat in. He met an owl and fell painfully in love. He was watched the whole time by a single mouse, but failed to pay it any attention.
Finally, the Magpie King returned with a single branch of blue flowers. Each flower was closed tight, as the petals were holding jealously to the rich nectar that was within. At the sight of the food, the black squirrel leapt down again, taking care to pull the sun with him, and gorged himself on the Magpie King’s find. He burst through the cocoon of leaves to the amber liquid contained within, and the Magpie King could clearly hear the splash of the nectar hitting the walls of the squirrel’s gut. Once again, the squirrel curled up in contentment, and once again, the Magpie King gave Mikweh a pat on the head. Anger draining out of him, the black squirrel diminished once more, down to the size of a wolf. However, it still snarled mightily at the Magpie King when it regained its senses, and quickly took up position again gnawing on the sun.
And so the Magpie King took a final journey down the fir tree. No records exist of what took place during this final trip. All that is known is that the journey took exactly three months and a day, and that when the Magpie King returned to the top of the tree once more, his hair was shaved off and he wept openly.
“Here, great Mikweh,” the Magpie King offered, bringing forth a tiny golden egg for the squirrel. The black creature scurried down from his perch, forcing the sun to follow, and eyed the egg greedily. With great reluctance, the Magpie King passed it to the beast, who cracked it open and gorged on the purple contents within. The Magpie King could not bear to watch this sight, but closed his eyes and reached out his hand to pat Mikweh one last time on the head. When the Magpie King opened his eyes, the squirrel was finally diminished to the size we know today. Indeed, so drained of anger and strength was Mikweh that he could no longer hold on to the sun, and it returned to the sky. In time, the sun regained its health and brought heat and light to the forest once more.
The black squirrel withdrew to the high branches of his tree and propagated more of his kind. The Magpie King had drained the squirrel of the rage that had allowed him to pluck the sun from the sky, but those flames came from a fire that can never be extinguished. To this day, when we meet Mikweh’s children in the forest, they shake their fists at us and chatter angrily, giving voice to their irritation. Dimly they recall their original greatness, and until they fade from the forest they will blame people for taking it from them.
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